England Women’s manager Mark Sampson says he’s more than happy with the 23 players at his disposal going into Friday’s Euro 2017 qualifier against Belgium but admits there is a chance for anyone to make the squad, should the Lionesses qualify for next summer’s tournament in the Netherlands.
Sampson has called on a squad of players he’s familiar with for the Belgium match as well as for the trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina early next week, with six points certain to push England closer to a spot in the tournament.
Friday’s opponents Belgium are currently 28th in the FIFA rankings but have several players who could cause Sampson’s side issues when the teams take to the field at the New York Stadium in Rotherham, with the boss admitting his side face a tough test against an improving side.
“I don’t know entirely what to expect,” said the manager.
“Certainly Belgium are a more talented team, without any disrespect to Bosnia. They’ve got some good players – particularly in midfield and in attack. They’ve also got a lot of athleticism on the park and that’s a big weapon to have in women’s football.
“They won’t come here and be silly. I’m sure they’ll be resolute and look to hit us on the counter attack when they can. As a team, we’re going to have to be very good in both boxes tomorrow – defend when we need to and be clinical when we get the chance to attack.”
With England expected to qualify for the Euro’s with ease, some fans may have expected to see more changes in the squad, with only Claire Rafferty, Jodie Taylor and Izzy Christiansen dropping out – all enforced through injury.
But Sampson appears to have settled on a core of players he trusts and it appears there is no sign of any major changes to the squad until friendlies are arranged for later in the year.
“We’ve been pretty clear since the World Cup and more so since the turn of the year, we’ve had a few games in China and in America and one or two other games where we experimented a little bit, but we’re clear now with the talent pool that we’ve got and our objective is to pick the best team for England.
“If that means the same team as tomorrow goes again in Bosnia then so be it, if we have to make eleven changes then we’ll make eleven changes. We want to put the best team out there and we’re confident we’ve done that for the Belgium game.”
As a coach, the 33-year-old is very methodical in his approach to every game, looking at different tactics and line-ups for every specific match and opposition.
With well over 30 players having now appeared for Sampson’s team since the World Cup, the ever increasing pool of talent is something which the manager sees as a huge positive.
“Yeah, absolutely – although it causes its own problems as well,” chuckles Sampson.
“But if you ask me whether I’d rather have a few good players or a load of good players then of course you want as many as you can. I’d love to have more, that’s why we’re still developing that player pool and we’ve got some fantastic players who aren’t a part of this group yet.
“There are certainly a few out there putting their hand in the air or knocking the door down but we’re aware of the criteria it takes to be an England player – the player profile has to be right for us, the characters in the group I’m pleased with, and players with experience whether at a senior or youth level.
Last year’s FA WSL top scorer Beth Mead was a part of the England squad that travelled to China at the end of last year, albeit the Sunderland striker is yet to make her debut for the team. The likes of Drew Spence and Laura Coombs have also been called up recently and Sampson sends a very clear message to any player still hoping to make it on the flight to the Netherlands.
“Without a shadow of a doubt,” said Sampson when asked about outsiders still making the Euro’s.
“We’ve always been clear that if players tick those three boxes for us then they will get an opportunity. If you’re good enough, you’ll be given a chance. Players came out of nowhere to make our World Cup squad at the last minute. There will always be that blend of youth and experience, but these are the girls with the jersey at the moment and if they keep playing well, they’ll keep that jersey.
The pressure on the England side is now very different to what it was 12 months ago. Off the back of a woeful Euro 2013 campaign, where the Lionesses failed to win a game and crashed out of the group stage, Sampson took over a side that had little expectation put on them going into last summer’s World Cup.
But continuous improvement in performance and a bronze medal has now seen England tipped as one of the favourites for the continental competition next summer and Sampson and his squad have embraced the expectation.
“We believe we can win the tournament,” says Sampson.
“We know there is a lot of hard work to do yet. We’ve got the belief and the confidence that we can be a difficult opponent for anyone and come back with the trophy.
“But we’re also realistic. The pressure has increased but it’s England – there will always be pressure and that’s really cool. Every time we pick a player, we know they can handle that pressure and hopefully next year they’ll thrive under it.”